Adaptor and Director: Rachael Bellis
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
Being a princess is a state of mind and, according to Frances Hodgson Burnett, very little to do with riches and breeding. In fact, as Rachael Bellis’ new adaptation at the Drayton Arms suggests, being a princess is about dignity, graciousness and kind-heartedness whatever life brings. Bellis’ adaption emphasises Sara’s essential goodness and the power of kindness in winning through life’s hardships to earn the respect of others – a heaty message in our divided times.
10-year old Sara Crew lives in India with her beloved father who decides she should attend a boarding school in England to complete her education. Once installed at Miss Minchin’s her demeanour and learning mark her out, but despite plenty of provocation from her spiteful classmates, Sara maintains her regal demeanour. When a change of fortune leaves her penniless, the evil Minchin casts the girl aside and the little princess must endure a new kind of life.
This very sweet production, running at around two hours including an interval, is faithful to the original story while feeling equally suited to the Christmas slot in a stage filled with yuletide fare by the design team that expands on the use of magic and the fairy-tale quality of the story to give it a festive twist. Bellis is perhaps a little too tied to the original at times, dramatizing almost every incident and while novels have the space to explore in-depth, on stage the rich detail of Sara’s circumstances can occasionally feel a little repetitious, with Act One, in particular, having limited plot development
Act Two is a little crisper with much to observe and resolve, although a few scene trims could make this a neater 80 or 90-minute show without the brief interval. Catherine Hiscock conveys Sara’s determined dignity extremely well and while occasionally in the early sections the character can appear a little priggish, her trial by adversity gives Sara a chance to show her true goodness and forbearance, a chance Hiscock grasps to show the warmth and deserving purity of the character.
This is a very hard-working secondary cast, with most of the company playing two or more roles, helping to suggest the extent of Hodgson Burnett’s world from the mean girls of the schoolroom to the poverty and destitution beyond its walls, not forgetting the Indian influence of Sara’s early life. Srabani Sen is particularly good as narrator and benefactor Radha, while Ellen Kruger as fellow maid Becky and Mimi Tizzano as Ermengarde make for great companions for Sara.
This year more and more venues are eschewing panto for more imaginative Christmas shows and the Drayton Arms have chosen well with this endearing production of A Little Princess, which mostly navigates the tricky page to stage translation to realise a much-loved story of decency and goodness. Little girls might dream of tiaras, gowns and handsome princess, but as this adaptation shows being a princess is all about grace under pressure.
Runs Until: 5 January 2020 | Image: Contributed